Charlotte leaders share path to increasing student achievement

Three Charlotte leaders share how they’re working to increase student achievement, help families engage more deeply in their child’s education and develop digital literacy skills. The following is part of an article that looks at Knight’s grantmaking in Charlotte.

Brandi Williams is a community engagement coordinator at Project L.I.F.T, a public-private partnership supported by Knight to accelerate student achievement in nine of Charlotte’s lowest-performing schools.

What outreach efforts are you prioritizing?  B.W. The first priority is how we engage parents.  We want to make sure our families have a great experience at our schools because we believe they’ll become the best advocates for the work we are doing.  In January, we’ll engage parents in telling their stories. We’re redoing our website to allow for a blog. We want parents to share the success of their students on their personal social media pages with the hashtag created for the program: #ready2LIFT. What issues in the community do people care about the most? B.W.: It’s simple: they care about the education of kids. They want to make sure that the work we are doing will help the kids we serve compete.  We have to provide the entire family with services to make this effort a success. What are some of the most significant barriers to getting people in the L.I.F.T. zone involved and engaged? B.W.: Many times students are dealing with issues of homelessness, drug abuse and disengaged parents.  All parents love their kids. They just don’t show their love the way we would define it and sometimes their issues keep them from being fully engaged. How do you combat those barriers? B.W.: We think like them and leave judgment at the door to work to give them what they need.  This means meeting them where they are, building trust and helping them define a path that is in line with their dreams and life mission. You’re from Charlotte originally. What does it mean to you personally to be doing this work in your community? B.W.: It means everything to me! I grew up not only in Charlotte but right in the Northwest corridor. I lived many of the challenges the students who are in our schools live and I had angels that helped me along the way. It feels great to be able to do the same for these kids.  

David Jessup is the U.S. project manager for One Laptop Per Child and oversees the introduction of the XO laptops to schools in the Project L.I.F.T Zone. He is a former Teach for America corps member in Miami.

How is excitement building toward the day in February when the students get their laptops? D.J.: The excitement is contagious. Facilitators are modeling laptop lessons, teachers are working in small groups with XO laptops and students are constantly stopping to ask me, “When are we getting our laptops?”

You’ve been intentional about the way in which the XOs will be introduced in the classrooms, with facilitators and IT support. What’s the strategy? D.J. There’s an emphasis on training and support for faculty and staff members at the school sites. We’re not just dropping off free laptops.  We’re committed to being present throughout the project’s duration to ensure maximized utilization both in and out of the classroom. After the kids receive the laptops, what are your first priorities? D.J.: Thanks to the work of our school-site facilitators, I am confident that students will be ready to use the XO laptops on day one of the rollout. In most classrooms, teachers and students have already had a chance to interact with the laptops. In the first few months of implementation, I look forward to that shift towards more authentic, project-based learning opportunities for our students. Teachers are being provided with over 150 lesson plans. In what ways does the work you do invite participation from students and their families? P.S.: An exciting component of my job is bringing together students, educators and their families. The XO laptop serves as the conduit by which we are able to do so.  The free and open source software available on our machine’s Sugar Learning Platform provides all members of the community with unlimited access to quality learning tools. What’s the most challenging part of your job? D.J.: Engaging the community. Each week, as my team sits down to discuss our work, I pay special attention to the successful strategies that are being used by school staff members and community leaders to get parents involved.  

Emily Swartz is a One Laptop per Child facilitator at Druid Hills Academy, a school in the Project L.I.F.T Zone that will soon receive laptops for its students. What are some examples of how kids who are already using their XO laptops are improving their skills? E.S.: Beyond the obvious technology skills, we have seen great improvements in the quality and quantity of their writing. Students are more enthusiastic about writing in large part because the laptop offers much easier ways to edit and revise work as compared to conventional writing.   As a facilitator, what does a typical class look like for you? E.S.: I am responsible for helping teachers to incorporate the XO laptops into their daily instruction. I create lesson plans for teachers, meet with them to brainstorm new ways to incorporate the XO, and also co-teach. I also conduct events for parents and community members. You’ve already been working with the kids in action on their XO laptops. What, if anything, has surprised you? E.S.: I have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly the students catch on. We’re further along than I anticipated. Some students are even creating their own projects on the XO, they view the XO as a way to express themselves.    What are some of the student’s favorite activities on the computers? What kinds of projects have they already started creating? E.S.: They love Chat Activity and Record Activity where they can take pictures and videos. Students also enjoy creating timelines showing the sequence of events in a story, drawing comics in which they change the ending of a familiar story and comparing sound waves of different noises. As an educator, what do you see as the importance of digital skills training for students? E.S.: No matter what these students decide to do when they grow up, it will almost surely involve computers. Digital skills training has very practical application, but more importantly it helps students be more independent and become critical thinkers who collaborate with their peers to solve problems. What are you most excited about happening when the rest of the students receive their laptops in February? E.S.: I am most excited for when students ask me, “When is my laptop coming?” I can say TODAY!

By Elizabeth R. Miller, communications associate at Knight Foundation

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